September 2018 Archives

The folks at have kindly posted the first chapter of The Labyrinth Index for your reading edification.

Enjoy! (I hope.)

So, anent nothing in particular, I was contemplating another of James Nicoll's essays on the other day—this one concerning utopias in SF—and found myself trying to stare into my own cognitive blind spot.

Like all fiction genres, SF is prone to fashion trends. For example, since the late 1970s, psi powers as a trope have gone into steep decline (I'd attribute this to the death and subsequent waning influence of editor John W. Campbell, who in addition to being a bigoted right-winger was into any number of bizarre fringe beliefs). "Population time bomb"/overpopulation stories have also gone into decline, perhaps due to the gradual realization that thanks to the green revolution and demographic transition we aren't doomed as a direct consequence of overpopulation—climate change and collapsing agriculture are another matter, but we're already far past the point at which a collapse into cannibalism and barbarism was so gloatingly depicted in much 1960s and 1970s SF. And so are stories about our totalitarian Stalinist/Soviet overlords and their final triumph over the decadent free western world. These are all, if you like, examples of formerly-popular tropes which succumbed to, respectively, critiques of their scientific plausibility (psi powers), the intersection of unforeseen scientific breakthroughs with the reversal of an existing trend to mitigate a damaging outcome (food production revolution/population growth tapering off), and the inexorable historical dialectic (snark intentional).

Oddly enough, tales of what the world will be like in the tantalizingly close future year 2000 AD are also thin on the ground these days. As are tales of the first man on the moon (it's always a man in those stories, although nobody in the 1950s thought to call the hero of a two-fisted space engineering story "Armstrong"), the big East/West Third World War (but hold the front page!), and a bunch of other obsolescent futures that were contingent on milestones we've already driven past.

Some other technological marvels predicted in earlier SF have dropped out of fiction except as background scenery, for they're now the stuff of corporate press releases and funding rounds. Reusable space launchers? Check. (Elon Musk really, really wants to be the Man who Sold the Moon.) Space elevators/tether systems? Nobody would bother writing a novel like "The Fountains of Paradise" these days, they're too plonkingly obvious. It'd be like writing a novel about ITER, as opposed to a novel where ITER is the setting. Pocket supercomputer/videophone gadgets in every teenager's pocket? No, that's just too whacky: nobody would believe it! And so on. (Add sarcasm tags to taste.)

We are living through the golden age of grimdark dystopian futures, especially in Young Adult literature (and lest we forget, there's much truth to the old saying that "the golden age of SF is 12", even for those of us who write and read more adult themes). There's also a burgeoning wave of CliFi, fiction set in the aftermath of global climate change. We're now seeing Afrofuturism and other cultures taken into the mainstream of commercial SF, rather than being marginalized and systematically excluded: diversity is on the rise (and the grumpy white men don't like it).

Which leads me to my question: what are the blind spots in current SF? The topics that nobody is writing about but that folks should be writing about? (Keep reading below the cut before you think about replying!)

By now, if you're one of Charlie's readers, you've probably absorbed the notion that security is a process. It's not easy to go from that to what it means in operant terms, but I lack sense so I'm going to try.

Most of the pitches for self-publishing as an activity are about how you can make money.

If you want to make money, you need to publish rapidly and you need to have a consistent brand in terms of what the writing is like, what kind of reading effort is involved, and where it gets the reader in the feels. All of these things create the engaged fan base that results in sales volume, and you absolutely need sales volume if you're trying to make money.

Oh, and you need to publicize, which its own set of skills.

My publicist skills are plausibly negative. I write slowly; the books are different; readers report feels variously, and after five books, total sales via all channels is under two thousand copies. If I've got commercial objectives, they're failing miserably; not quite "died in a pit of desultory rat-gnawing", but certainly somewhere around "succumbed to exposure after the seventh hour of hard cold rain".

So why am I doing this?

"Commercial" means "a sufficient audience to support the writer and the production effort". My suspicion is that just as being able to make lots of money off of recorded music was a temporary aberration brought on by a particular tech level, so was being able to make money off of writing novels. That period hasn't quite expired, but it's gone from "skill and persistence and some luck" as the career criteria--this is the activity as keeps you fed and housed, career--to "skill and persistence are necessary, but not sufficient". You can't plan on a career doing it, even if it's something at which you are skilled.

Story was mostly a performance, for most of history. Written story was something a professional writer--meaning scribe--did in their spare time. I don't want to say hobby but it wasn't what kept you fed or housed. Novel-scale story is going back to being a kind of performance with the increasing market share of audio books; a distinct market, for which the written text version of the novel is not regarded as substitutable. Rather like how any camera that isn't a phone camera is niche, the written novel is an increasingly niche form of story.

That's the gloomy view; we had this thing, and now it's gone. But maybe you will get very lucky, if only you buy a ticket. (It's not a cheap ticket.)

I think there's a cheerful view.

If you're trying to make a commercial success of writing, the commercial objective is a constraint. Success requires consistent novelty, modest demands on attention, and, above all, appropriate emotional responses.

It becomes a kind of iron triangle; a narrative can produce novelty, immersion, and feels but only in a relatively small portion of the possible space. (At least for any specific reader. Lots of choice encourages particularity.) Get too far toward the novelty, immersion, or feels points of the triangle and you don't so much risk breaking the story as you make reading too much work for the story to have commercially sufficient numbers of friends. ("If you believe it is a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds." There have been periods of time and publishing firms for whom "commercially sufficient" was flexible; such a publishing house might undertake a book perceived to be worthy even if it wasn't expected to sell sufficiently well.)

If you don't have those commerical constraints, there are things you can do that aren't otherwise possible. You're not going to make a living at it, and your share of the (growing!) market will be even smaller than it would otherwise be (the market is not growing as fast as the number of people entering it), but maybe you can have more fun.

If you can approach the text with an expectation that whomsoever shall read it knows they have to read all the words, you can get a degree of immersion not otherwise achievable because you get to use all of the finite number of words to contribute to the setting, rather than losing lots of them to narrative redundancy. You only get so many words; most words can't do two jobs. Ease-of-reading redundancy uses up the utility of a large proportion of the available words.

But if you can move toward the immersion point of the triangle; if there's the assumption the reader is going to read all the words and expect all the words to mean something and that there isn't any more redundancy than you find in life and that the viewpoint is never going to tell you anything because you're the reader, you can get places not otherwise reachable. (C.J. Cherryh is a master of this; Cyteen is not an easy book to read, however much the consensus has come down on "repays the effort".)

Similarily, you can go for novelty (classic Niven or Clement! This isn't a story, this is a travelogue of weirdnesses cut with physics explainers!) or feels (Pamela Dean's Tam Lin or The Dubious Hills). There are lots of other examples, and yes, the scope of commercial does move over time.

Is it worth it? Commercially, now, when there's so much available so easily that no one is going to feel compelled to finish anything because it happens to be the one book they're going to be able to find this month? No. Not even a little. The tech change means more genres, with narrower scope per genre. So for commercial, that's the end of it. If you're not so supremely gifted or so supremely fortunate that you can invent a genre (Pratchett!) your text, that story, this approach to narrative, aren't any of them getting to perform the experiment to enumerate their friends. Not by a commercial publication channel.

Not by any commercial means. But today, because self-publishing ebooks is technically trivial, they can.

I think that's a net win from the reader side. I think it's a net win from my side. I hope it's a net win for a lot of writers. (And that I'm not wrong about the readers!)

I think there's the example of Romantic poet and engraver William Blake, who produced an unusual body of work; never a commercial success, never widely known, difficult, and not permeating popular culture (Anyone know who Rintrah is?). Blake's body of work has still found enough friends to persist this long while.

Fame isn't worth much; "You'll be famous when you're dead" is worth nothing whatsoever. Word-fame does die, however well you achieve it. But what you don't publish, no-one reads.

So what have you read that you're glad of, published for no plausible commercial reason though it was?

Charlie here (back again, briefly), with news on two upcoming appearances.

Firstly, I'm in Berlin next Monday (September 10th) (that's the capital of Germany, not the small town in New Hampshire—or the one in Maryland): I'm doing a reading and Q&A (and signing, of course) at Otherlands Bookshop Berlin, Bergmannstraße 25 (U7-Bahnhof Gneisenaustraße), 10965 Berlin, from 8-10pm. And afterwards I'm moving on for drinks at the Dolden Mädel Braugasthaus, Mehringdamm 80, 10965. (I am informed there's a Facebook event for this: if you plan to turn up, please sign in so we can give the bar some idea of how many people to expect.)

Secondly: this October, I'll be in Vancouver as one of the author guests of honour atthe VCON 42 SF convention, from the 5th to the 7th; memberships are still available if you go to SF conventions and are in the Pacific north-west. (Unfortunately I can't make it to CanCon in Ottawa the following weekend—the time line doesn't link up—but hopefully I'll be able to fit in a bookstore event or pub meet-up in Toronto or Ottawa before I go home, later in the month. Watch this blog entry for updates.



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